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Florian von Kurnatowski - GenNext Collaboration Suite

CrazyEngineers exclusive interview with Florian von Kurnatowski of Scalix as a part of Founders Circuit initiative
CrazyEngineers
CrazyEngineers Staff · 30 Sep 2008
Founders Circuit Team
"Write 10 lines of good code every day - keeps the doctor away!"
- Florian von Kurnatowski, Scalix

Open. Unwired. Secure. Flexible. Thats what Scalix is all about. With over 675 corporations trusting with its deployment across 55 countries, the three times winner of LinuxWorld best in show award, Scalix is one of the best messaging solutions available today. Welcome to the world of open source email and collaborative groupware.
To tell you the truth, we have been patting our backs - for having Mr. Florian von Kurnatowski, Director of Product Management at Scalix on CrazyEngineers. Yes! We are extremely happy & excited to present our Small Talk with Florian von Kurnatowski...

CE: Hi Florian, you are the Director of Product Management at Scalix. Could you tell us more about your job?

Florian: Hi – first of all, thanks for having me and the great opportunity to talk to you about my work and our product; I think you guys have a pretty unique approach writing about technology and I enjoyed reading some of the other posts on your site while preparing for this talk.

Product Management, in my opinion, is one of the most interesting and challenging roles within any software development company or organization. First of all, you need to stay fully up to date with market trends and requirements, requests from existing and upcoming customers, the sales team and also listen carefully to support for issues customers may be having with your product. For a hybrid model like ours where we offer free - as in beer, remember, I am German! - and open source components as well, community input is almost equally important. I spend a lot of time reading on our forums and I believe I am still the number one contributor by posts, even though the community is now large enough to be self-maintaining when it comes to technical questions. The final part is a mid- to long-term (in software terms: think 1-1,5 years!) strategy that is designed to keep up a couple of unique things about your product and make a difference – and we have a number of pretty exciting things we are looking into. Can’t talk too much detail here, but stay tuned.

The next part is then to create release project plans for the development team. This has to take into account available resources, planned release dates - keeping input from marketing in mind with regards to conferences, shows and other events – and specific customer project requirements. Of course, there is always more demand for new features, enhancements, broader platform support and bug fixes than we have development capacity for, so basically it’s a constant search in getting the best possible results out of what you have – a constant exercise in optimization.

This sounds like a huge team effort, and it absolutely is. The challenge however, is that product management tries to drive the development organization in many different ways, but usually has only a very small team – I have one direct report to help me right now. Therefore, I need to negotiate quite a bit to find the resources across the company to make our product vision come true. This part of the job really defines your management and communication style. It’s very much looking for allies everywhere.

CE: Can you take us inside the Scalix open architecture platform?
Florian: Sure I can. While some people in product management come from the marketing side, I have a very technical background, and, believe it or not, while Scalix as a company was only founded in 2003, I’ve known the technology for more than 15 years now. Scalix is based on a foundation product we acquired from Hewlett-Packard, called HP OpenMail; that project was started in the late 80s, so it’s a very mature platform. The fundamental concept of the product was always to keep an open platform. As an example, we are very bold about our “Clients-of-Choice” strategy. In the old days of OpenMail that meant CC:Mail and MS-Mail, two clients most people have forgotten about. Later came the Exchange client, then Outlook. Outlook is still one of our more important clients today, but over time we have added AJAX-based Scalix Web Access, a very strong RIA (Rich Internet Application), Support for various Linux-based clients like KDE Kontact and Novell’s Evolution as well as Open Standards. The latter is becoming more relevant over time, starting with IMAP for email and now CalDAV for Calendaring – this way we can now support Apple’s Mac OS/X built-in iCal client as well as Mozilla’s Thunderbird and Lightning. And then there are the mobile clients – we are launching our own implementation of Microsoft’s market-leading ActiveSync Over-the-air protocol as we speak.

Openness and choice are our mottos in other directions – we support a very rich ecosystem with various anti-spam and anti-virus solutions, we can work with any LDAP-based directory, not “just” Active Directories like some other players, and we also give people open interfaces for email archiving, something that becomes more important every day with stricter compliance requirements imposed on our customers.
All this is based on a deep and rich technology stack. Our server core is basically self-written, highly optimized “old-school” C code, and we see no reason to change that. The newer interfaces are built as Java-based web services using SOAP, REST, WebDAV, XML and similar technologies, also providing for very powerful integration points for anyone wanting to base 3rd-party or custom application development on Scalix.

CE: What are the problems with existing messaging systems that engineers behind Scalix are trying to solve?

Florian: This is really the forward-looking part. I think the main problem with email systems is that they have become too clogged with things that shouldn’t be in there. People sitting in one office use email to transfer files between each other. A group of people working jointly creating a presentation forward multiple copies of the PowerPoint file among themselves, effectively turning their email system into a versioned filestore, which is a task that should really be fulfilled by an Enterprise Content Management system. Then people swap between email and IM conversation and neither of the two threads has the complete communication history and archive in it anymore. With all this happening, message store databases become larger and larger and harder to maintain for the system administrator. And keep in mind, this is a very mission critical system that your business relies on – assume it goes down in a disaster happening to your datacenter, the time to recover will directly depend on the size of your database. You really want to keep it small.

Furthermore, there is a pretty unique opportunity. People live in their email clients these days, whatever they may be – Outlook, a mobile device or your web browser. This is a very personal application. That’s the reason why some other companies like IBM with their Notes desktop try to turn a specific email client into the user’s workplace, almost replacing the desktop OS itself with it. Now, as I said, our philosophy is clients-of-choice, so with the exception of our web-based solution we are not in the email client business. Therefore, we have to find ways to map that workplace user experience on a broad set of clients, preserving as much functionality as possible. Our latest release, Scalix 11.4, offers a glimpse of what’s ahead. You can integrate with RSS feeds and WebCAL calendars right on the server, and, unlike other solutions, the data provided by those feeds is available in ALL your clients. This is different from a client-centric approach where you have to setup all of these everywhere, all the time, and it provides for a much more consistent and successful user experience.

This is really the way to go for us – Scalix has started to progress from a pure backend system storing email, calendar and contact data to more of a corporate information hub, pulling in information from various sources, however not copying or importing it, but proxying to it, delivering it to the user’s desktop – or, in the case of large file attachments received by email, even automatically externalizing it to storage more adequate for the type of data at hand, to really keep the message store size to what it needs to be. I think such a system will really meet the current and coming demands of email users in a much nicer way than most systems of today. Combine that with additional access channels including voice, enhanced mobile device support, and you really have a story here.

There is one thing I am jealous about looking at Microsoft – I would really love to have the “Exchange” product name for what I just talked about. I guess that won’t happen so we’ll have to come up with something different. Again, stay tuned.

CE: Is Scalix working on platform interfacing onto mobile phone software, making it more users friendly and creating a world of high end digital connectivity without keypad use?

Florian: Mobile device support is extremely important and we have a collection of options available here: web-based, through 3rd-party wireless servers and a new built-in ActiveSync solution. However, as I said, we are not really in the client business – our goal is to support leading client devices. When it comes to high-end mobile devices, for me Apple has really raised the bar with the iPhone. It’s not a perfect device, I’ve been using one since mid last year and I can find many things to improve. Also, Apple’s definition of openness can be subject of a pretty deep discussion as well. What no-one will doubt, however, is that they have blown away industry giants like Nokia, Motorola, Microsoft and RIM in terms of usability of mobile data and internet applications. I have tried web browsers on at least 20 different mobile devices, this is the first one that fits into my palm and that I want to use again. Others will follow; this has changed the market forever. Our job is to provide rich backend support for this and coming devices. Apple has decided to implement ActiveSync client-side, we are doing the server-side work, so I am using my iPhone with ActiveSync and Scalix server as the backend today, getting the benefits both from the device’s usability and our servers stability, performance and openness.

CE: How easy is it for a normal user to deploy this solution?

Florian: We really put a lot of effort into ease of installation. If you are setting up Scalix on a supported Linux platform, the actual installation happens within one integrated tool and takes no more than 15 minutes. Of course, then you have to setup internet connectivity, user accounts, client access and maybe perform some data migration, so it depends on your overall setup. As a datapoint, we have recently migrated a customer in Germany from a competing solution that they were not satisfied with in a single day – the customer bought our product in the morning and by the end of the day, 75 users were actually using Scalix. Lucky Punch.

CE: Linux + Scalix, is it the perfect replacement for Exchange + Windows?
Florian: Yes, absolutely. Many customers come to us and ask about migration to “Linux”. Now, especially if you have a Windows background, it’s pretty easy to mess up this first step. I’ve seen people trying to replace their Windows NT domain with OpenLDAP and Samba as a start. Now, while both these tools are great in their capabilities and they offer a very adequate replacement for Microsoft products in many ways, they are somewhat rough on the edges as they get that “latest and greatest” raw community feel. This can be intimidating to organizations new to Linux and to be successful there you need someone who really knows what they are doing. For such customers, I would always recommend to go with a fully-integrated and tested commercial application first, basically using Linux as the strongest, most flexible, highly secure operating system platform underneath. For choice of applications, look at running an Oracle server on Linux, even choose SAP – or go with Scalix. It’s a safe and sound starting point. This is also the reason why Xandros, our mother company, acquired Scalix – their motto is “Making Linux Work For You”, and that fits what Scalix is trying to do for our commercial customers, while keeping all possible doors open for free community use.

CE: How is Scalix able to integrate with third party services and solutions? E.g. an ERP system, a CRM system, an analytics tool, a AV?

Florian: I think I have probably answered the question already. We provide many open interfaces based on standards such as IMAP, WebDAV, SOAP, REST. Our strategy is server-side integration so that all clients benefit from it. Email itself is a powerful integration interface. Scalix has been used with commercial and open source ERP and CRM systems such as Sugar CRM or SAP; customers are using ClamAV antivirus with it, alongside a commercial solution from Kaspersky or Trendmicro. The doors are wide, wide open. Of course, some customers prefer a more tightly integrated and preconfigured solution. We already have a number of vendor relationships – we provide integrated AntiSpam and AntiVirus from our technology partner Commtouch, a third-party wireless server exists from Notify servicing all kinds of devices including Blackberries and our German partner SEP provides a fully-integrated backup solution allowing for single mail restore from a graphical, easy-to-use UI.

CE: Does Scalix work on a collaborative mode with current email exchange platforms such as Microsoft Outlook or Novell evolution? How?

Florian: Absolutely. As I said, clients of choice is our motto and both of those, amongst many more, are fully supported by Scalix. This is either based on Open Standards, such as with Mozilla Sunbird or Thunderbird/Lightning email and calendaring, or we provide a number of connectors – a commercial one for Outlook and an open-source one for Evolution. A connector for KDE Kontact was created in an independent open source project that we didn’t even know about. I really love it when I find those things much later.

CE: Do you sell processor specific licenses instead of user specific licenses?

Florian: We want to keep our license model simple. We have 4 classes of systems: the free Community Edition, a Small Business Edition, an Enterprise Edition, and a Hosting Edition. Pricing is mostly based on the number of mailboxes hosted on the servers. The one difference is Community and Small Business vs. Enterprise and Hosting – the former are single-server only while the latter support distributed multi-server environments. Once you go there, however, there is no limit in the number of servers you can deploy; it’s again only based on mailboxes and users. We don’t believe in writing books about our license structure. Our pricelist still fits on a single sheet of paper.

CE: Why is it called Collaboration Suite? What can the users achieve by collaboration of their emails?

Florian: It’s more than email – we provide calendaring, contact management, public folders, delegate access, access permissions, data sharing, resource booking and other things – that defines a basic collaboration environment. Pulling in external data sources like file servers or news and calendar feeds enhances this experience. At the end of the day, it’s about your workplace, about how you spend your time in the office, on the road, at home, in your work and personal lives. Our tools help you to do this in a collaborative manner with your coworkers, colleagues, friends, partners. That’s networking and collaboration for me.

CE: Do you see a strategic shift towards open source email management in near future?

Florian: Open source is one possible development model and a very successful one. We ship a number of our components as open source and will continue to do so in the future where it makes sense. Given the number of players that base their email servers and collaboration tools on open source, it is probably one of the more relevant areas. This seems logical, because it is ubiquitous, it is one of the applications that affects the typical open source crows, students, technology enthusiasts, everyone, so I think we feel pretty good in this space and it will continue to grow. On the customer side, all Fortune 500 companies use some kind of open source today, so it’s there and it works; business models around it are still evolving and possibly it will need some more time to balance them out, but in general I’d see this shift happening and it will be the proprietary vendors that will see the need to adjust to it. I see full and deep integration of Open Standards as a good chance to do that. As an example, we are a member of calconnect.org which drives CalDAV and related technologies. A good year ago, Microsoft joined the organization and while they are not offering CalDAV in Exchange today, they are very interested in better interoperability and I think they take the existence of the non-proprietary world as a given for their daily business.

CE: What are the features that give Scalix an edge over its competitors like Zimbra’s ZCS?

Florian: I really don’t want to go into a feature-by-feature comparison with other products in our space. In general, most are useful products and the decision which one works best for your business is one that you have to take yourself. We invite everyone to try out our stuff, in fact we are very easy about independent reviews and comparisons. So far, we have held up well – as an example we recently won infoWorld’s prestigious BOSS (Best of Open Source Software) award for groupware and collaboration for the 2nd year in a row – their assessment was that we are the most balanced solution. I think that part speaks for itself. We have a very mature product with broad appeal. If customers come in asking about certain features and integrations, most times we can simply say: Been there, done that! And that would include me, personally.

CE: How do you make good use of the developer community keen on experimenting with open source emails exchange platform?

Florian: This is one of the bigger challenges; so far, our community is mostly one of users and admins. I must admit that for a developer, the sheer size of our product – just imagine 20 years of development time – is intimidating and will certainly deter people from going in knee-deep. We have seen localizations, integrations through our web services interface and open source client development. It’s been growing steadily and we continue to support every developer starting stuff based on Scalix through our forum – our own engineers provide a lot of 1:1 assistance there.

CE: Many thanks for talking to us, Florian. What message would you like to give to the members of Crazy engineers’ community?

Florian: Take your pick: (1) Write 10 lines of good code every day - keeps the doctor away! (2) Only a dead bug is a good bug! (That’s actually a quote from “Starship Troopers”, my favourite “Soft Splatter” type movie, although that could be because of Denise Richards being in it) (3) Plain and simple – keep up the good spirits and enjoy being part of such a lively crowd. Crazy is good.
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CrazyEngineers is thankful to Mr. Stephen E. Harris for his help & support in making this small talk possible. CEans,

Engineers are special. Engineers have been known to solve the complex problems of the world & making it a better place to live. Some time back, four brilliant engineers joined hands with each other to solve the water problems of the developing countries. They have brilliant ideas, they have a plan, they have necessary skills & they are good at execution! No wonder they bagged 3 out of 5 top prizes at Wharton Business Plan Competition! Yes, they are Team Innova Materials!

CrazyEngineers is extremely proud to have Alex, Priyanka, Arjun & Calvin of Innova Materials. They are changing the world and they want you stay crazy & change the world with them. Check out our Small Talk with Team Innova Materials:-

CE: Hi Alex, could you please introduce your team to us?

IM: Sure! For starters, we all love technology and engineering and are engineers ourselves, one of the strongest common threads amongst the team. But beyond that, we each bring something a little different to the table. For example, I come in with leadership and management experience having founded another technology company, Crederity, as well as knowledge from work in business, nonprofit, and tech that helps in communicating and relating Innova Materials’ platform technology to the people we encounter in the real world. Priyanka Agarwal is originally from Mumbai and has worked with Goldman Sachs, McKinsey & Company, and Nano-Tex, learning what makes both mature and growth companies in India and in the US tick. Arjun Srinivas speaks the language of both Wall Street, having spent time with Susquehanna Private Equity and the Livingston Group, and technology, having worked in nanotech-focused research labs around the US. Calvin Peng brings a disciplined, quantitative dimension to Innova’s decision making processes, drawing from his work at BCG, UCSB and elsewhere. Rounding it out, we also have a couple of very important interns who are starting to take on more responsibility, including Michael Young of Stanford University (Electrical Engineering).

CE: What’s the secret behind your team’s name, ‘Innova’?

IM: There’s a secret? I guess we shouldn’t tell then! But seriously, we wanted our name to reflect that we are talking about re-inventing how people can use materials. Plastics and rubbers changed the world in the 20th century mainly due to their structural properties, low cost, and easy processing. Innova Materials is giving innovators in the 21st century the means to re-imagine what these polymers can do and forever change the way we interact with plastics and rubbers.

CE: What does Team Innova do?

IM: Fair question. Innova Materials has developed a platform technology called Innlaytm which can be used by product manufacturers to functionalize the surfaces of plastic and rubber products by directly embedding nanoscale or microscale materials into the product surfaces. This can enable all sorts of product enhancements in the real world—medical equipment and devices that can’t grow bacteria on them, low-energy digital displays powered by nanowires or nanotubes, ultra low-cost diagnostic biosensors and labs-on-a-chip, and more. On a day-to-day basis, we conduct R&D and prototyping work, interact with current and potential partners and clients, engage in various business development tasks, and generally have a lot of fun doing it all.

CE: Your initial challenge was to develop a low cost solution for water quality problems in the developing world. What are the problems associated with quality of water in the developing world?

IM: The problems are very dire, but I’m hopeful that they’ll be addressed in the coming decade as the global community begins to recognize that water quality issues are solvable and worth solving. The current statistics are horrible, however. 42,000 people die every week from water-borne diseases, the vast majority of them children, and pretty much all of those deaths avoidable through the practice of basic sanitation hygiene and the application of basic technology. Although I spent a few years running Penn Engineers without Borders and focused our efforts on water quality issues, I would still defer to persons more deeply involved in this area on a day to day basis for a complete answer. A great starting point is https://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/.


CE: Can you tell us more about the process Innlay™? What would you call the advantages and short comings?

IM: The strongest differentiators of the Innlay process are cost-effectiveness and performance. There are of course other ways to impart plastic surfaces with new properties—incorporation of additives and masterbatches into the entire resin mix, coating, chemical vapor deposition—but all of these methods waste time, energy, and material, and often don’t result in the level of performance possible with Innlay since our process directly embeds active material into surfaces. Another significant advantage is that Innlay is a post-manufacturing spray process, so product manufacturers don’t need to change existing processes to adopt it. One shortcoming of Innlay actually comes about from the fact that it’s a new process. As is often the case, one can expect there to be inertia in the market to stick with what has been practiced in the past. We’re addressing this in a couple ways. We’re using the technology in a promotional product, IonArmour Clean Hydration (www.ionarmour.com), as a demo of Innlay’s commercial viability. We also are enhancing samples for product manufacturers at no cost to them so they can preview the advantages of Innlay first-hand. And we are getting out into the real world and talking first-hand with researchers, business leaders, and other parties (including CE!).

CE: You have recently swept the awards at the Wharton Business Plan Competition. Could you tell us more about it?

IM: That was an exciting day for Innova Materials. Actually, the competition itself ran over the course of a few months, but culminated in the Venture Finals, a single day where the top 8 teams, filtered down by a panel of dozens of VCs, engineers, professors, and others, vyed for the WBPC’s top awards. We walked away with $30,000 and 3 of the competition’s 5 top awards, but I think the greatest asset we took away from the competition was the insight of top entrepreneurs and investors who served as judges of the competition and the people we met and continue to meet thanks to the event. It was also nice to see our business model receive validation from the judging panel.

CE: You have made a claim to have imparted permanent anti-microbial treatment to the inside of pipes. Could you tell us more about it and how did you managed to achieve it?

IM: A couple years ago I was in Terreritos, Honduras with Engineers without Borders, building a water system with the villagers to bring running water from a spring to the village homes. While there did not appear to be significant water quality problems at the source itself, it became apparent that contamination of the water in transit could become a problem. While filtration at the point of use would address this, it was clear that a way to avoid contamination in transit, or even a way to purify water in transit, would be of great value. I did research and discovered that bacterial growth in plastic pipes is a problem not just in the developing world, but has even caused deaths in supposedly modernized countries such as the US. The idea to create plastic pipe permanently embedded with antimicrobials and other beneficial particles on the pipe interior became the topic of a final paper I wrote for a sustainable development course I helped initiate at the University of Pennsylvania. This then became the topic of my teammate’s and my engineering thesis work at Penn. Working out of the Materials Science department at Penn, we built functional prototypes which went on to pass independently-conducted ASTM test for antimicrobial efficacy with results better than anyone expected (99.99%+ efficacy).


CE: Innlay™ indeed might be considered as one of the engineering marvels. How did you come up with the idea of developing such a surface coat (if I may call it) polymer? Or may I put it this way. “How are you re-imagining polymers?

IM: We prefer the term “surface enhancement” instead of “surface coating” because the end result and the process itself is markedly different from coating. As for the origins, the process originated from my experience out in Honduras (see above), so in a sense it came about by accident since neither I nor my teammates intended to produce a universal method of functionalizing plastic surfaces when we set out to create plastic pipe embedded with antimicrobials. We’re now making it possible for manufacturers to easily and cost-effectively make plastic and rubber materials do interesting and valuable things that they were never meant to do. For example making plastics kill bacteria and mold, power low-cost flat-screen TVs, catalyze harmful pollutants in the environment into less harmful compounds, enable cell phones that smell like strawberries or chocolate (or both), bind DNA and other biomolecules to enable early detection and treatment of disease, and so forth. We are currently in discussions with a variety of companies looking to benefit from Innlay, from those looking to break the mold out of the gates with game-changing technologies, to companies simply looking for new market opportunities.

CE: How is it different from the traditional ways of coating?

IM: Coating plastic is not straightforward. Coating typically is not as simple as taking a sprayer, spraying some solution onto the plastic, and letting it air dry (which is about the level of complexity of Innlay, BTW). To impart new properties to a surface via coating, a secondary matrix material that must be carefully selected is deposited on top of the plastic, throughout which is mixed some sort of surface-active functional material (e.g. an antimicrobial). However, an initial binding / adhesion promotion layer is often required. Sometimes, various other basecoats and topcoats are required. Finally, the various layers must be cured, which involves time and energy. The net result can be a lot of lead R&D time to develop an effective coating on a product-by-product basis, wasted energy, time, and materials spent on multiple processing steps, wasted surface-active material which never makes contact with the product surface, changes to product surface properties, and surface enhancements that are subject to peeling and other durability problems encountered when you have composite interfacing layers as with coatings. Unlike coating, Innlay does not layer surface-active material on top of products within secondary matrices, but instead embeds the surface-active material directly into the product surface without chemically or otherwise altering the surface itself. This means Innlay fundamentally overcomes the shortcomings of coating, and as a single-step process, is far easier to perform than coating.

CE: What are various applications of your product?

IM: I’ve mentioned a few throughout this chat—antimicrobial plastics, flexible, transparent, low-cost digital displays, inexpensive biosensors and lab-on-a-chip technology, consumer products like digital media players and cell phones that are fragranced, catalysts to remove pollutants from the air and water. As a platform technology, Innlay can be applied in many meaningful ways, and we are always on the lookout for partners who we can use Innlay to embed nanoscale or microscale materials into polymer surfaces to accomplish novel or improved utility.

CE: Considering the fact that your innovation is aimed at solving water quality problems in developing countries, what are the costs involved in deploying your solution?

IM: Even back when this technology was still our thesis work, our selection parameters when assessing various means by which to enhance polymer surfaces included cost as a prominent parameter upon which to optimize. So cost considerations have always been of paramount concern to us. In fact, the relatively high cost of plastic surface enhancement via coating and other existing means is an opportunity for Innlay. Anyway, the main costs involve the cost of the solution which the Innlay process uses, the cost of the surface-active material being applied via the process, the equipment that the process uses, the energy the process uses, and the machine or human time required to use the process. Because the ingredients of the solution and the equipment required are mostly commoditized, and because the process is less time and labor intensive than coating, these costs are kept in check and make it feasible to use Innlay in the real world—whether in developing or developed countries.

CE: Now that you have already applied for a patent, what next?

IM: The closing of our seed round of financing, further expansion and protection of our IP portfolio, the launch of our promotional demonstration product line (www.ionarmour.com), more deals lined up with paying customers and partners, and explorations of what new technologies and products we can enable and what existing technologies and products we can make more efficient with Innlay.

CE: What initiatives you would take to encourage budding engineers who might want to work with you?

IM: We love engineering students and recent grads (and can definitely relate, having recently been engineering students ourselves). If you’re interested in chatting, drop us an email and let us know you read about us at CE. We may not have a position available in the short-term, but we’ll certainly keep you in mind for the future.

CE: Many thanks for talking to us. What message would you like to give to our CEans?

IM: Stay crazy! Where there is a will to make something better, faster, stronger, cheaper, there is a way.
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CrazyEngineers is thankful to Team Innova Materials for Small Talk with us. Find out more about Innova Materials at https://www.innovamaterials.com